Image Credit to Indiewre
Spoilers for The Americans’ 4th Season and latest episode (S04E04) below.
In its fourth season, FX’s The Americans-a drama about Soviet spies trying to live in America-exudes so much confidence and ease that it’s breathtaking. Every choice, from the plotting to the dialogue to the camera position to the editing, comes with an understanding that the less this program does to explain context, spell out themes, or highlight emotions, the more powerful and moving it becomes.
Take, for example, the final scene from this week’s episode “Chloramphenicol.” In it, Nina Sergeevna Krilova, a traitor to the Soviets, is executed. The scene’s last shot begins as an overhead medium shot of just Nina lying down with blood trickling out of her head. Eventually, the camera pulls back and re-frames the entire scene in a right-side-up full shot where we see Soviet guards surround Nina, check to see if she’s breathing, and haul her corpse away.
Image Credit to The AV Club
The final shot and camera movement is representative of how Nina’s been treated since she admitted to being a traitor. While she’s had a few allies, Nina’s mostly been alone, her fate up to the bureaucratic processes of the Soviet government (and whatever compromises they make with the Americans). Despite doing what the Soviet government has asked (such as spying on her American handler or other traitors), Nina’s been largely ignored by her country’s officials. They care more about following the rigid and horrific penalties they’ve set up for traitors than for her humanity. The final shot plays this conflict out again. First by isolating Nina as the remaining life in her bleeds out, then by revealing how the Soviet guards couldn’t give any less of a damn about her, and finally by showing how they start to dispose of her body immediately-how they return to the institution’s procedures.
In other words, this final shot and camera movement captures the tragedy of her life in just 67 seconds. What’s remarkable, though, isn’t that The Americans pulls of this visual metaphor, but that the program doesn’t even bother highlighting it. None of the guards or Nina speak about how lonely she is or how her government doesn’t care; her execution order is given and then she’s executed. In fact, in the entire episode, the only discussion of Nina’s depressing fate comes early. Her lover, Oleg, asks his powerful dad if he can save her because she followed her duty, and his dad shuts him down by explaining the risk of helping a traitor. Now 35 minutes later, The Americans returns to this exchange’s core idea, but the program’s so sure of the character work done across four seasons and its visual form, that it doesn’t worry about announcing that return.
Image Credit to TV Ate My Wardrobe
Look at any scene, shot, or line of dialogue from this season, and chances are you’ll see this confidence underneath. The Americans has grown so mature that it trusts itself now to deliver comedy without resorting to one-liners or broad characterizations, to create suspense that focuses on the dangerous knowledge a character is about to uncover rather than their possible death, and to provide tender moments that rely on the shared experiences between two characters without referencing those experiences. In a time when most movies and shows either explain everything or don’t bother explaining anything, The Americans is content to lay everything out on the table, but allow you to fit the pieces together.
The program doesn’t just trust itself, but it trusts you. And that faith in the viewer makes the show far more absorbing and rewarding. Yes, referencing Nina’s plight closer to her death or during her death would’ve been upsetting, but allowing someone to realize that plight on their own produces a volcanic eruption of anger. Anger at the fact that she’s dead, that few government officials cared for her, and that they don’t even recognize the ugly and monstrous way they treated her. That anger remains long after the show’s rolled to credits because it’s connected solely to a precise shot and a fluid camera move. The elegance of it all is what breaks your heart.
After finishing this article, I read up on what critics had to say. The AV Club‘s Erik Adams and Vulture‘s Matt Zoller Seitz bring up similar ideas to what I do in this piece (and publish them in a more timely manner), while also talking about the season’s larger narrative, and the idea of redemption.